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  • Writer's pictureJason Breen

Tabernacle for the Holy Cross Monastery

When icon painter Zachary Roesemann sent me a quick sketch for a tabernacle proposal for the Holy Cross Monastery in West Park, New York, I immediately liked the idea.   The temple-like form appealed to my historic and traditional aesthetic.  Even with his quick sketch, I could imagine the complete structure without need for complicated drawings to work out details of joinery or assembly.

A tabernacle is essentially a box for storing the sacrament—blessed bread and wine—used in communion. Tabernacles are common in Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican churches, but are still an esoteric form outside of these communities.    I was unaware of this form of tabernacle, and my work is not typically so symbolic in nature, so I was glad for Zachary’s explanation.  We discussed some design considerations and iconographic metaphors linking the piece to history and to today's spiritual yearnings. 

With Zach’s expertise we chose the ornamentation: carved capitals for the columns matching those in the Holy Cross chapel; the inlaid descending dove; a carved Alpha and Omega; and black stringing inlaid around the panels. These elements are what make this tabernacle fit comfortably in the home it was made for.

Holy Cross Monastery. Photo by Zach Roesemann

Holy Cross Monastery is An Anglican Benedictine Community which offers retreats for guests from around the world. Construction of the building, designed by architects Ralph Adams Cram and Henry Vaughn, both known for their religious buildings, began in 1902. It sits on a peaceful site overlooking the Hudson River.

Column capitol in the sanctuary at Holy Cross

The sanctuary of the monastery has a row of columns which inspired those on the tabernacle.  A modern interpretation of the ancient Corinthian order, they are topped with scrolls and foliage.  Before I bid on this project, this is what I practiced making.  Carving tiny capitals only 1 1/4” high was a particular challenge for this piece.    In addition to learning how to layout and carve in the round, I needed to buy and make a few special tiny carving tools for this part of the tabernacle.  Some of the detail is lost at this scale, but the relationship to their antecedents is plain to see.  Further, these columns are a common motif in religious architecture going back thousands of years. 

Although doves are a common theme in modern Christendom, the descending dove idea also comes from way back. The dove as a symbol of the Holy Spirit derives from the Gospel accounts of the baptism of Jesus. Some tabernacles of the early  centuries of Christendom were made of metal, shaped as doves and suspended from the ceiling. Priests could raise and lower them with chain; the back of the bird was hinged to allow access to the bread and wine stored within. Why hung from above? For the visual impact of the sacrament descending from on high? To keep out of reach of vermin? Probably both.  While rodent control was not an issue for us, the heavenly reference of the dove descending does add to the meaning of the tabernacle’s design.  Also, we needed something to balance the light color of the curly maple columns. The dove, inlaid in holly veneer on the top of the tabernacle, brings a lightness to the rest of the box, both visually and metaphorically. 

The Alpha-Omega carving above the painted Jesus  comes from His statement, “I am the Alpha and the Omega” (Rev. 1v.8). The classical Greek alphabet begins and ends with these letters, thus: “I am the beginning and the ending.”  Often, Alpha and Omega are shown to the left and right, or just over Jesus' head.

Black stringing with in-turned corners on the top and panels of the tabernacle is reminiscent of Greek decorative art. Western European and American furniture incorporated the same motif during the Empire period of the early to mid 1800s—the Greek revival.   Although the Chapel building itself is not in this style, the faith and its decorative arts are rooted in Greek Orthodoxy, as seen with the icon painting itself.  Stringing is a common way to add depth and detail to an otherwise plain piece of wood.   Here it frames the dove well and adds visual interest to the sides and back of the tabernacle.

Hidden from view is the interior of the tabernacle. To keep the inside as bright as possible for visibility, I built the arched vault of light-colored birds-eye maple—a beautiful figured wood—and veneered the interior panels with the same. It seems appropriate that a bird flies overhead on the exterior. I have come to think of this particular wood in this particular space as “God's-eye maple”, and let Him keep watch over the Sacrament.

Much of my regular work is designed with geometric proportions, and sometimes number symbolism. These mostly go unnoticed—they are a way to make furnishings that are pleasing to look at and satisfying to live with, more than a way for the user to connect directly with the piece.    It has been fun and satisfying building this tabernacle with overt symbolism, that its viewers will see, understand, and perhaps use as a conduit for their connection with the Divine. 

More about the painted icon on the front of the tabernacle in the next post, from the icon painter himself...

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